As we all know, Memphis voters had the opportunity last week to consider several candidates for the office of mayor, for City Council seats, and for other city offices. What they didn't have the opportunity to consider was the means by which some of these candidates financed their campaigns -- who their donors were, how much money they received, and how they spent it. This, despite the fact that campaign-finance laws are in force to publicize such information. More to the point, it is despite the fact that state law required all candidates in last week's election to file a quarterly report on their finances by Thursday, October 2, to provide ample time for the news media to sift through the disclosures and pass salient information about them on to the voters.
The problem is, it didn't happen -- or it happened so incompletely as to defeat the purpose of the law. Of the 56 candidates on the October 9th ballot, only 35 had their disclosures in by the posted date. And only in District 9 did all candidates in all positions comply with the deadline. What that meant, in effect, was that voters were deprived of key information that they should have had in order to make comparative judgments about candidates.
Ah, but surely there is machinery available to enforce the law and make the rascals pay for stiffing the electorate! Sure there is: a fine of $25 -- that's right, $25 -- for each day that a disclosure is late. It's difficult to call that even a slap on the wrist. The county Election Commission can, if it chooses, keep levying that monumental fine for 30 days -- until it reaches the grand total of $750 (much less than the $1,000 that one fat-cat donor is entitled to contribute to the coffers of the offending candidate), at which time it can pass the issue on to the State Registry of Election Finance. That body can, if it chooses, and after a lengthy period of usually desultory investigation, levy further fines of up to $10,000. In practice, penalties of that magnitude, or of any magnitude, are extremely rare. In other words, scofflaws can procrastinate a whole month before complying with mandatory disclosure requirements, at pitifully small risk to themselves.
It's worse than that, really. The Election Commission is required to extend miscreants a grace period of 10 days after the deadline before it can even notify them by certified letter of noncompliance. It is only when the receipt from the certified letter comes back that the clock can start on the $25-a-day fines. "It's a terrible law, worse than useless," acknowledged an Election Commission administrator, who conceded further that the commission has never levied even one day's worth of the permitted fine on a local candidate. What it has done in a few flagrant cases is pass the matter on to the state Election Registry, which -- beyond its own limited ability to fine -- is empowered to prevent a candidate from filing for another office until his or her accumulated fines are paid.
It is at best a cumbersome system, easily beat and, at worst -- well, "worse than useless" about says it. Clearly, a new law with real teeth in it is badly needed. The legislature and Governor Bredesen would be well advised to look into the matter when the Tennessee General Assembly convenes again in January.